November 17, 2019

Franciscan Friday: Sentimentalizing Francis

Legend of St. Francis – Renunciation of Worldly Goods. Attributed to Giotto

Franciscan Friday
Sentimentalizing Francis

I am reading Adrian House’s biography, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, and thought today I would share some words from its introduction, written by Karen Armstrong.

Like Jesus himself, Francis is often sentimentalized. We like the image of the poetical saint, preaching to the birds and exulting in the beauties of the natural landscape. We look back with nostalgia to Francis’s time, when the natural world and the Bible seemed not to contradict but to complement one another. But we have no intention of imitating his total self-abandonment which, the masters of the spiritual life in all traditions insist, is essential if we wish to experience the Sacred. A great deal of religion is actually devoted to the propping up of the ego and the establishment of a secure identity. We do not wish to emulate Francis’s material poverty, a symbol of his transcendence of the self, and we prefer to keep clear of beggars and the like. Francis’s spiritual journey began when he laid aside his visceral disgust for the lepers of Assisi and kissed their hands. This act of compassionate love gave him an immediate intimation of the divine presence.

Religion cannot always be tasteful or confined within the polite restraints of institutional practice, because it aims at the infinite. Like Jesus, Francis showed the difficulty of incarnating a divine imperative in the flawed conditions of human existence. His stringent bodily and spiritual mortifications never degenerated into masochism or narcissism because they were always tempered by a kindness, compassion and gentleness to all creatures which, again, is often sadly missing from the churches that proclaim his sanctity.

Comments

  1. But we have no intention of imitating his total self-abandonment which, the masters of the spiritual life in all traditions insist, is essential if we wish to experience the Sacred.

    But is that really true? Isn’t it possible to “experience the Sacred” in the midst of our everyday lives, loving our families and neighbors, loving our children, taking up our daily responsibilities, living out our cares and joys, doing the work that we find to do? Must we all imitate Francis’ extraordinary lifestyle to have that experience of the divine, or is there not a form of “self-abandonment” in the midst of everyday life that leads to the same place?

    • I agree with you Robert. I can admire people like Francis, but I don’t believe his way is mandatory for knowing and experiencing God. If it was, that would be another form of wretched urgency. God may call certain people to live like this, I don’t think he calls us all to live like this. When Jesus called the twelve disciples they had to leave everything to follow him. When another man wanted to follow Jesus after being delivered from demons Jesus told him to go home and tell his friends and family what God had done for him. While there are still those today called to leave everything behind, or maybe live a life similar to Francis, I believe most of us are supposed to continue on where we are, telling others what God has done for us.

      • ” I don’t think he calls us all to live like this”

        23 And He said to them all, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Like Jon said, WRETCHED URGENCY.

          Especially when More Christian Than Thou One-Upmanship kicks in.

        • But that can be via your work, your life, etc. Jesus lived most of his earthly life as an ordinary person, in an ordinary family, in an ordinary job, in an ordinary town. Maybe he just wasn’t radical enough.

    • many have followed St. Francis’ example of service to the lepers

      take, for instance, the life of Damian of Molokai who volunteered to go and serve the lepers of the colony on Molokai in Hawaii

      Here is a picture of him at the end of his service, when he was able to say to his congregation: ‘fellow lepers’

      https://i.pinimg.com/564x/4f/2e/cc/4f2ecc89ec7d1621fe9922eeff043838.jpg

      what did he look like when he volunteered as a young priest?
      take a look:

      https://i.pinimg.com/564x/1f/ea/71/1fea711b29a1c4de82dfdc6260a210f8.jpg

      sometimes, there ARE no ‘words’ in response to ‘over-sentimentalizing’, but the REALITY of a life lived in service to God is better seen for oneself . . . so we know . . . . so we know

  2. With regard to the idea that much of religion is devoted to propping up the ego: This can also be true of ascetic religious practices, which can subtly yet powerfully reinforce the practitioners sense of mastery over himself and the spiritual world, resulting in tremendous ego-inflation that can easily be confused with an “experience of the Sacred”. This is something that the “masters of the spiritual life in all traditions” have also insisted on. I’m currently reading a fascinating account, A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Depression, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, of how that happened among a group of American Tibetan Buddhists, with deadly results, at a retreat center in the Arizona desert.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      This can also be true of ascetic religious practices, which can subtly yet powerfully reinforce the practitioners sense of mastery over himself and the spiritual world, resulting in tremendous ego-inflation that can easily be confused with an “experience of the Sacred”.

      Again, One-Upmanship.

      “More Ascetic Than Thou” until you’re gargling lye alongside St Rose of Lima.

  3. senecagriggs says

    “Francis’s spiritual journey began when he laid aside his visceral disgust for the lepers of Assisi and kissed their hands.”

    IN OUR TIME, food handlers wear gloves and hairnets.

    We’ve come a long ways baby!

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      I’ll take, any day of the week, people not actually dying from preventable disease over the aesthetics of religious gestures of respect while they die. So too would, I am sure, St Francis if he was aware if the germ theory of disease – he was all about sacrificing the self and ego for the practical, useful love of others.

    • Hmm…what takes more courage and is more gracious, hugging a leper while encased in full protective gear and a hood or hugging them with regular clothing and bare skin?

      I’m not saying I could do the latter, but from the leper’s viewpoint, I know what would feel more like love.

      • As a leper I would be desperate that no-one else caught my disease. Given how hard Hansen’s disease actually is to transmit, you probably wouldn’t have to use full on Universal Precautions, which has a face shield, but not a hood.

    • senecagriggs, There are health care workers by the hundreds, or perhaps even the thousands, at this very moment in Africa treating Ebola patients at great risk to their own lives, even with all the Personal Protective Equipment that modern medical technology can provide. And they are not unique in their degree of heroism and compassion; neither are they all Christian, nor even religious.

      • senecagriggs says

        Robert F, not sure why your comment was directed to me.

        • David Cornwell says

          I think I know.

        • You were comparing our time to Francis’, implying ours is a time of spiritual cowardliness for using protective equipment even in food handling. while in Francis’ time Francis embraced lepers without use of protection. I’m pointing out that you are wrong. Many in our age are as compassionate and loving as Francis was. Actually, in Francis’ time, lepers went not only untouched but untreated, neglected, and exiled by the wider society; we remember Francis’ compassion for the lepers because it was unique, not because his age was known for it.

          • senecagriggs says

            You have it SOOOoo wrong Robert F. Just stick with the words I write, you’ll be okay.

            • Could you please explain what your comment meant, then? I think I may not be the only one confused by your comment on this thread, if my interpretation of it is incorrect.

            • Of course, it’s entirely possible that I am the only one who misinterpreted your comment! I thought it was sarcastic. Whatever the case may be with regard to the status of my interpretation, I’d appreciate a clarification.

  4. I know it’s not the same author, but I’m having difficult seeing the difference between St Francis’ dedication and that of Amy Carmichael who was charged with mental derangement here in a recent post.